TUMBY BAY - They’re burying Howard Richards on Thursday. Howard was a Barngarla man from the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.
He was part of the stolen generation, taken away from his family as a child to grow up in a boy’s home in Adelaide.
I worked with Howard and the Barngarla people on their native title claim for many years. Their lawyer, Philip Teitzel, died a few years ago.
Like Howard, many of the Barngarla had been taken away from their families as children and in the process lost their connections to their culture and their land. It’s a common story in Australia.
Working with Howard and the other Barngarla men and women on the native title claim was a learning experience for us all. Together we scoured old government records, anthropological works and old newspapers to re-discover Barngarla culture.
We also talked to elders from both nearby and distant tribes to establish what song lines and mythologies crisscrossed Barngarla land.
On one memorable day we hiked into the hills between Port Augusta and Whyalla to a series of caves that they knew about but had never been allowed to visit.
Inside the caves were ancient rock paintings. The paintings were so old that the ochres, charcoal and kaolin used to create the images had chemically bonded to the rock. You could throw a bucket of water over them and they would never wash off.
Howard and the men with him called out to the ancestors for permission to enter the caves as we approached them. They then lit a fire of eucalyptus branches and passed through the purifying smoke before entering the caves.
The painting in the largest cave featured a brightly coloured snake about 7-8 metres long. The snake was an Akurra, a powerful serpent in the Central Lakes Wilyaru tradition.
Its existence proved beyond doubt that the land belonged to the Barngarla and not to the nearby Western Desert groups who had also laid claim to native title over the area.
Howard was one of the main drivers of the Barngarla Native Title claim and saw it through from the early years and the many, many Federal Court hearings until it eventually succeeded.
He was a gentle, sober and thoughtful man and while he always projected a serious demeanour had a wry sense of humour.
He was partially deaf as a result of poorly treated ear infections while he was in the boy’s home but that didn’t deter him from playing his beloved Australian Rules Football.
He was only 67 when he died after battling liver cancer for a short while.
The Williams name is predominant in the Aboriginal communities of Port Lincoln, Whyalla and Port Augusta and Howard was one of their fairest sons.
It was a pleasure to have known him.